PRSA to "The Economist": PR Pros Are More Than Merely “Image Men”

 

Gary McCormick

By Gary McCormick, Chair and CEO, Public Relations Society of America

The Economist is many things: A world-class business and political affairs newsweekly. High-brow journalism. A publication offering thorough perspectives on relevant issues. Well, most of the time . . .

In a lengthy article for its year-end issue examining issues of global concern, The Economist smartly listed public relations as an industry that will continue to play a big role within the global business community. Unfortunately, the publication chose a rather perplexing and contumelious approach to analyzing public relations’ value.

Derisively titled, “Rise of the image men,” the article attempts to paint the profession in the unflattering light of being the selfish younger brother of advertising and marketing; desperately grasping at those industries’ long-held fame and fortune.

Fortunately, for the well-informed, The Economist’s pessimistic assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. Reality tells us that PR is far more sophisticated, and delivers considerably more value, than it is often given credit for.

And, as 2011 PRSA Chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske, APR, noted in a tweet Monday afternoon, the article missed two clear points relevant to the rise in PR’s value: “Whatever happened to the women? And we work on reputation management, not image.”

In a letter to the editor of The Economist submitted this week by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and co-signed by John Paluszek, APR, Fellow PRSA, former PRSA chair and CEO, and currentGlobalAlliance Chair, we noted that, “Public relations is widely recognized within the global business, nonprofit, NGO and public service communities as having progressed to the point where professionals are generating two-way communications, leading to mutual understanding, cooperation and reciprocal relationships at many levels of society.”

What else did The Economist fail to grasp in its analysis? Beyond the obvious, a few key points—and a much broader perspective—would have been prudent to properly inform its readers. Among those:

●      PR has served immeasurable public good. It has changed attitudes and behaviors toward some of the world’s most pressing social issues, from breast cancer awareness to drinking and driving to smoking and obesity.

●      Women play a significant role in driving innovation within the profession. The article’s use of the pejorative label “image men” is insulting not only to the profession as a whole, but to female professionals, who make up a large swath of practitioners, including serving in senior-level positions in some of the world’s largest corporations.

●      PR already owns social media. Numerousinfluentialbloggers,newsoutlets andresearchreports make a clear distinction that in the digital age, PR provides the most value to clients for their social-media endeavors.

●      The industry is growing—rapidly. According to projections from theVeronisSuhlerStevenson 2008 CommunicationsIndustryForecast 2010-14, the PR industry will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 5.6 percent through 2014.

●      Ethics guide the profession. Public relations professionals have a special obligation to practice their craft ethically, with the highest standards of truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public. The PRSACodeofEthics provides a practical set of standards to follow in this regard.

But don’t just take my word for it. The comments written thus far to the article offer an encouraging rebuttal to The Economist’s short-sighted and pejorative-laden analysis.

 

About the author: Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA, is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, and director of partnership development at HGTV in Knoxville, Tenn.

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11 Comments

  1. Marilyn Casey, APR on December 22, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    Well-written article that clearly delineates all that’s good about public relations and the quality of its role in the marketing communications field. However, I did have to look up the meaning of the word contumelious. That’s a new one for me!



  2. Mara Conklin on December 22, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    I would add another way that public relations contributes to organizations: by filling the sales pipeline. When done the right way, PR can be a main driver of leads for B2B companies.



  3. Richard Cole on December 22, 2010 at 3:32 pm

    Mr. McCormick is justifiably concerned about the article on PR in The Economist. I too have grown increasingly frustrated at the “spinning” of the practice that seems to be the nature of so much of the reporting regarding public relations. In some respects, the cynicism reflected in the Economist article is justified. But the viewpoint that permeates the article ignores even a bigger issue than any of those raised by Mr. McCormick, or in Rosanna Fiske’s tweet.

    It is the nature of the role of public relations counsel, as Edward Bernays attempted to emphasize over his 80 working years , that the practice should be dedicated to much more than highlighting — high-pointing as he called it — the achievements of organizations. The negative reputation that the practice enjoys is certainly largely a function of the tendency of some practitioners to engage in distortions designed to create “artificial reputations.” That was the work of “Poison Ivy” — a tradition carried out by many practitioners today.

    Bernays vision of the field — which is also practiced today by many — was one that emphasized the counsel on public relations’s responsibility for “adjusting organizational behavior” to better conform to the values of the audiences upon which the organization depends. That vision certainly embraced the notion of advancing the public interest. An objective reading of one of Bernays’s earliest works “Propaganda” (1928), for example, would verify this assertion.

    Much of the work of the “excellent” public relations counsel is done as a full member of the dominant coalition of organizations, and that work is more focused on preventing crises than it is on explaining, justifying or, certainly, “spinning” them. Perhaps the practice is most responsible for the negative reputation seems to have. By failing to police its membership and failing, also, to highlight this important “adjustment” role, we have allowed the practice to be framed by journalists and sociologists who have never seen excellent PR work from the inside of an organization.

    Richard Cole, Professor (Public Relations) Michigan State University



    • Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA on December 22, 2010 at 10:13 pm

      Excellent points throughout your comment, Richard, and thank you for that thoughtful response. I completely agree that we (both PRSA and the profession as a whole) need to be more proactive in talking about the value of public relations.PRSA’s Business Case for Public Relations (http://bit.ly/gAzv7G) will continue to be a major platform for our advocacy, including educating the media, the business community about the strategic value of public relations, over the next year as it has been in 2010.

      While we will likely never win the satisfaction of every naysayer, the fact of the matter is that we can point to specific times where public relations has served tremendous public good and helped businesses prosper. Unfortunately, that perspective was largely missing from The Economist’s piece And as you rightly note in your comment, we all need to do a better job of properly educating those who misunderstand public relation’s role in crisis management and issues where public trust is of utmost importance. 

      Gary McCormick
      Chair and CEO, PRSA



  4. Patricia Garrison on December 22, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Excellent response, and I appreciate the comments as well. But, in the spirit of what the magazine obviously got wrong, I will add this: The characterization of PR pros as “image men” is so sexist and outdated that it rivals MadMen. We are — regardless of what your opinions might be — a profession with as many (if not more) women than men.



    • Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA on December 22, 2010 at 10:18 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Patricia. You’re certainly right that women play a significant role in the evolution, innovation and value of public relations. It’s unfortunate that The Economist failed to address that, and instead, focused on outdated stereotypes and pejoratives that in many ways, are an insult to the profession to the excellent work of both men and women in the profession. Had the publication sought a more comprehensive perspective, I would hope it would have quickly realized that unlike 50 years ago, the profession has advanced dramatically, to the point where female public relations professionals now hold senior-level positions in some of the world’s largest organizations. 

      Gary McCormick
      Chair and CEO, PRSA



  5. Dr. Joe Trahan,APR,Fellow PRSA on December 23, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Gary well written response which reinforces the fact that we build solid and ethical relationships with all of our publics.Thank You.



  6. Estfar on December 29, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    The comments above hit various important points and highlight critical issues. As a PR practitioner, I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I agree, our practice has many positive case studies to point to, where the art of communications and public relations has been used to further important causes. However we have also played a very critical role in manufacturing false images and premises; we have spun false stories and promoted some of the worst causes. And we have done it for the money because at the end of the day — we are a business. So while I love what I do and the profession I am in, I am keenly aware that, like every other business, it has its dark side. I choose to work with people I respect, causes I believe in, issues I am passionate about. Not all of us can say the same. PR can at times be a very dirty business.



  7. Sandra Longcrier, APR, Fellow PRSA on December 29, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    I have not had the opportunity to read the article. Too busy working to make sure my organization, my family, my church, my volunteer organizations have strong two-way communications with key stakeholders, based on shared values and beliefs. I’m proud to tell people I am a public relations professional and that my oldest daughter has chosen to make a difference in the same field. That pride is also because of the wonderful people with whom I have the pleasure to work. Thank you Gary and others for continuing to stand up for public relations.



    • Gary McCormick on January 4, 2011 at 2:54 pm

      Thank you for your kind comment, Sandra. It’s encouraging to hear from professionals, such as yourself, who are working so hard to make public relations a valuable service to the public, business community and others.

      It’s also great to hear that your daughter has chosen the profession, and I’m sure she will make quite a difference and impact. My son as well has chosen to pursue public relations as his profession, so I feel your pride and your conviction for many reasons.

      I’m proud to stand up for public relations’ value, as is the new PRSA chair and CEO, Rosanna Fiske, and I can assure you that PRSA will continue to advocate on behalf of the profession and its members in the weeks, months and years ahead.



  8. Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA on January 4, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you for your kind comment, Sandra. It’s encouraging to hear from professionals, such as yourself, who are working so hard to make public relations a valuable service to the public, business community and others.

    It’s also great to hear that your daughter has chosen the profession, and I’m sure she will make quite a difference and impact. My son, as well, has chosen to pursue public relations as his profession, so I feel your pride and your conviction for many reasons.

    I’m proud to stand up for public relations’ value, as is Rosanna Fiske, the 2011 PRSA chair and CEO, and I can assure you that PRSA will continue to advocate on behalf of the profession and its members in the weeks, months and years ahead.

    Gary McCormick
    Immediate Past Chair and CEO, PRSA